Reflections on the NFA 2009

– a personal view by Chris Hankin

It’s many years since I last visited the NFA Convention and this year it was being held in New York. Credit crunch? What credit crunch? I couldn’t resist the pull of my favourite city and I managed to persuade my long-suffering husband to come with me as long as we had a holiday afterwards. So Thursday August 13th found us jetting off to the Big Apple for 3 days of wall-to-wall flutes. The Annual Convention of the National Flute Association is now in it’s 37th year and this one was appropriately subtitled ‘Bright Flutes, Big City’. I was very interested to see how much had changed during my absence.

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The first thing was that it felt very expensive. In order to register ($230) you have to join the NFA ($60 for emembership meaning that you print out the Flutist Quarterly!) and it was another $75.00 for Gordon’s ‘Non Flutist’ badge – in all $365 or about £225.00. So what do you get for your money? Well, not surprisingly, the flute, the whole flute and nothing but the flute. You are given a 325-page handbook, which, you very quickly discover, is an utterly indispensable guide to the astonishing amount of events on offer. There are concerts of all kinds, lectures, masterclasses, workshops and showcases. Big names, little names, composers, jazzers, pedagogues, publishers – the list of participants seemed endless. The big dilemmas were all about how to go to as much as possible without suffering a breakdown of some kind halfway through the second day.

One of the odd things about the NFA is that they always hold their Conventions in a swanky hotel, in this case the Marriott Marquis, fantastically situated on Broadway just by Times Square. This has obvious benefits, not the least of which is that everyone can stay on site and there are no travel problems. The hotel allows up to 4 to share a room (not a problem in the US where the rooms are vast), so costs needn’t be exorbitant. The big disadvantage is that the acoustics in the performing areas are less than ideal with low ceilings, plush carpets and lots of soft furnishings to soak up the sound. All the performers are therefore up against it no matter who they are. Another problem is that some of the spaces are just too small – I tried to hear Alexa Still one morning and the queue was out the door and down the stairs!

Rebecca Collaros, a close friend, is on the NFA committee and was a volunteer usher. (She also happens to be the teacher of President Obama’s daughter.) Rebecca had the misfortune to be the main usher at Denis Bouriakov’s recital, which was held in a side room far too small to accommodate the many who wished to attend. As large numbers tried to crowd in, the hotel staff deemed the room overcrowded and locked the doors. There was a near riot outside as angry punters demanded entry. Rebecca has seen it all before of course, as this is not uncommon. We were safely inside however, and were treated to an hour of the most wonderful flute playing – even if he did play entirely violin music! We took her for a drink afterwards to compensate and described his playing as best we could.

Another fact about the Convention is that it’s huge. 4000 attended this one at some point over the 4 days and the attempt on the world record for the Largest Flute Ensemble (conducted by our own Sir James Galway) was successful. And what do 4000 flute players do? They perform in flute choirs of course! This was first thing we came across as we arrived and it soon became clear that they were everywhere – in the foyer, up the stairs, in the bar as well as in the concert hall. This is a big part of the American flute scene and enables players to get involved at all levels. Flute clubs are integral to the success of the NFA and as this convention was in New York and therefore even larger than usual, they encouraged as many as was physically possible to perform. Bravo!

4000 flute players are also encouraged to part with their hard-earned dollars in the vast exhibition hall. As you would imagine, there were a lot of instruments here – I reckon the Flute Centre of New York was showing upwards of 500 flutes alone. On the other hand Miguel Arista had a single flute, a few headjoints and plenty of orders. The Arista family is always interesting. The 3 flute-making brothers see eye-to-eye about almost nothing, so they have three different stands in 3 different parts of the hall - confusing if you can’t remember which brother is which. The exhibition itself is a little daunting, not to mention noisy, but I did manage to join the Marcel Moyse Society (free), buy a book ($15.00) and a natty gadget which has a screwdriver at one end and a springhook at the other. This cost $10 and came with a guarantee – a veritable bargain! I also bought a piccolo…….

Not everything at the Convention is all razzamatazz. The Louis Moyse Memorial concert was a touching event, well presented. We were supporting Rebecca who had spent some time studying with him and had been asked to play. During the solos and ensembles that made up the tribute there was a slideshow featuring these performers as they had worked with Moyse at his home. Some of them were understandably moved by the occasion. Janet, Moyse’s wife, was there to narrate one of the pieces and to also read a tribute. This proved too much for her and she inevitably broke down, as did another performer, Shelley Binder, as she tried to continue. Eventually John Barcellona, the concert organiser and long-time friend of Moyse, finished the script – by which time even I was struggling. It was all very American.

The nature of the concerts during the Convention is interesting. The big names have one to themselves of course, but others are often grouped under a theme of some kind. This might be “Ellis Island: Music from Around the Globe” which took place at 8.30am on Saturday and featured music by Elizabeth Varcoe, Heinz Benker, Chan Ka Nin and Bartok, or “Born in the USA: NFA Commissions that Live On” - 9 of them - which took place at the more civilised hour of 1.30pm. We made sure to support the Brits in whatever capacity they were performing. “Ian Clarke in Concert” was wonderful, as was Wibb’s CPE Bach Concerto in the Friday night Gala concert. Paul Edmund-Davies was very impressive, flying the flag for British excellence and wit: “For this concert I was asked to make the musical journey from Italy to England – but not via France!” he quipped to everyone’s amusement. 2 newcomers were also impressive. Carla Rees was wonderfully composed during her lovely performance of 2 pieces by Michael Oliva as part of the “New York Electrified” concert. Andy Findon performed his own Michael Nyman transcription ‘Yamamoto Perpetuo’ as part of “The Melting Pot: Works from Slovenia, Russia, France, US, England and Germany”. This contained a real hotch-potch of contemporary pieces and lasted nearly 3 hours! There was some great stuff here though, including the beautifully sensitive music of player/composer Wolfgang Wendel. Andy did us proud and treated the small but appreciative audience to an astonishing display of virtuosity.

There was so much that got away – so many flutes and not enough time. I missed the “Gothic Gathering: Chamber Music for Mixed Ensembles”, “Kings of the Hill, Top of the Heap: Piccolos in Concert” the Telemannathon (all 34 flute duets in succession) and the Baroque Flute Artist Competition Finals. I didn’t hear Alexa Still (again), Steve Gorn and his bansuri flute, or the Venezuelan National Flute Orchestra. I even missed our illustrious editor - sorry Robert but we landed too late! And anyway there were friends to see. Haffi from Iceland showed me her new book. I hadn’t seen her for ages and wasn’t expecting to run into her either, so that was a real treat. There was also much propping up of the bar to do as well, as this was the best place to meet new players. It was also relatively quiet!

So had much changed? Well it was definitely bigger than I remembered and noisier. The standard of playing was exceptionally high but that’s the same here and is to be expected everywhere. The variety of events was truly staggering. The format was pretty much the same though, and I was surprised at just how many people I recognised after such a protracted absence. Flute Conventions are always marvellous gatherings of all kinds of people united with a passion for the flute and this one was no exception. I had a great time on my last visit all those years ago but it was even better here. And there was still New York to see. After all, I was supposed to be on holiday!

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